Why is Microsoft seemingly determined to avoid addressing Xbox One's energy-wasteful default mode, which is costing consumers millions of dollars a year in electricity bills?
That's the question raised by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental action group. The New York-based non-profit has repeatedly requested that Microsoft review its current policy of supplying Xbox Ones with highest energy setting as default, without an obvious option to reduce power consumption on initial set-up.
In a report last year, the NRDC highlighted the high amount of energy used by current generation consoles in standby mode. This week, NRDC senior scientist Noah Horowitz published a blistering blog post attack on Microsoft's policy calling it "a waste" and describing Xbox One's current standby mode as "poorly designed."
Standby defaults result in a lot of unnecessary energy use
Here's the problem. In default, your Xbox One is never really "off." It is waiting for you to wander by and say the words "Xbox On." When it hears those words, it switches itself on. The energy consumed in that waiting draws 12.5 W of standby power continuously.
"That results in a lot of unnecessary energy use," Horowitz told Polygon. "Up to $250 million worth a year that gamers in the U.S. will eventually be stuck paying."
Xbox One users can go into the setting menus and change the default to an energy saving mode, meaning that the machine will not respond to "Xbox On" and does not download updates while in standby mode. But you really have to look for it.
I have owned an Xbox One since launch. I hardly ever use voice commands. I turned over to energy saving mode today, for the first time. It wasn't difficult, but I'm a lazy person. I'd probably never have thought to bother if I hadn't read Horowitz's report. I find it probable that a significant number of people who rarely use voice commands, have the machine in its default mode, and are therefore wasting energy that they do not need.
"The 'Instant On' mode, which started as the culprit for almost half of the console's annual energy consumption, is still responsible for close to 40 percent of the total," wrote Horowitz on the NRDC's blog. "It's still ridiculous that an option that many users may not care for should hog so much energy."
Last year's report from the NRDC stated that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One's standby modes and video capabilities are responsible for vast increases in power usage over their previous-generation versions. The report found that over the course of a year, the PS4 and Xbox One consumed two to three times as much energy as the final models of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
This confounded earlier claims that newer consoles would be designed around environmentally sensitive concerns. The NRDC estimate that current games consoles use "the equivalent output of four large power plants, and their associated pollution."
Horowitz (pictured right) said that Sony has made some progress in the past year by plugging the PlayStation 4's USB port power leaks after the controllers are fully charged. But although Microsoft has reduced its standby mode usage from 18 W to 12.5 W, it has ignored requests to go further.
In Europe, the law obliges console makers to supply energy saving modes as standard on new consoles. Microsoft complies in European countries, where Xbox One owners are given the option to activate "Xbox On" when they set-up their consoles. But no such law exists in the U.S. where Xbox One is sold in its highest energy usage mode. There is no option during set-up to switch to the lower energy mode.
"While the device is reasonably efficient when playing a game, that is more than offset by its power-guzzling 'Instant On' standby mode that is enabled by default," added Horowitz. "You could be sure that Microsoft's engineers would quickly cut the standby power of the millions of consoles sold outside of Europe if the company had to pay for the electric bill and carbon offsets for all this wasted energy."
I emailed Microsoft a set of questions regarding this issues, as follows:
- Why is this seemingly wasteful default necessary?
- Why doesn't Microsoft in the U.S. follow the same default as Europe?
- Why isn't the default offered as an option upon set-up?
- How does this square with Microsoft's stated goals on the environment?
- Why has Microsoft not responded to the NRDC's repeated requests to change the default?
- How many Xbox One owners actually switch on their machines verbally, as a percentage of total users?
- How difficult it is to change the default setting, from an internal technical perspective?
A Microsoft spokesperson responded with the following statement:
"We designed Xbox One from the ground up to maximize computational power per watt. We have a scalable architecture, which means it uses only the computing capacity needed for a task. When it's ready to respond to 'Xbox On' it uses about 12 watts, and in its lowest power state, Xbox One uses a ½-watt."
The spokesperson advised people to go to its support page for information on energy-saving modes.
I asked Horowitz to respond. "While it's true that the Xbox One is capable of only drawing 1/2 watt of power in standby mode, the reality is very few of the installed consoles ever get down that low," he said. "Why? It's because Microsoft insists on shipping their consoles with the 'instant on' feature enabled and fails to offer users the 'energy-saving' feature during initial set-up, which means the device will instead draw 12.5 W of standby power continuously.
"While Microsoft got a lot of things right regarding the design of their Xbox One, they have failed big time in terms of the high standby power most of their consoles use. As a result of their 'instant on' setting, which is shipped enabled by default, Microsoft's Xbox One consoles in the U.S. are poised to use more electricity in standby mode than all the homes in San Francisco consume each year.
"There is no good reason these devices need to stay on continuously listening for your voice and drawing 12.5 Watts of power even though your device is turned off and you are not home. Microsoft has some of the smartest engineers in the world on staff who should be able to fix this very quickly. Lets hope they are assigned the task to do so."
To enable energy-saving mode on Xbox One go to the Home screen, press the Menu button on the controller, select Settings, then Power and Startup, and select the Energy-saving power mode. To save energy (and money), avoid using games consoles for streaming movies. Smart TVs or Apple TV-like gadgets use far less energy.